Tucked away in the family trees of nearly every Russian Jewish family to have arrived in America, by my admittedly unscientific survey, is the uncle or cousin or last-born brother who stayed behind to fight with the Bolsheviks. In my wife’s family, for instance, there was the young firebrand who fought with Trotsky and disappeared somewhere in the Urals, never to be seen again. In the case of a friend, the family Talmudist and budding rabbi battled the White Guards in Siberia, then left the country once the totalitarian noose tightened, retaining his old-school communism to the end of his life.
Isaac Babel was one of those who stayed behind, though he had several opportunities to leave. Born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in 1894, he moved to Petrograd as a young man and, a gifted writer, found work at Maxim Gorky’s Novaya zhizn, a newspaper that Vladimir Lenin personally ordered to be shut down after Gorky criticized the Bolshevik leadership one time too many. Gorky was allowed to continue working, but he would pay for his views 20 years later, murdered by Stalin’s secret police. Someone in power must have recognized that Babel, too, was an able chronicler, and he was sent to serve as a journalist with the First Cavalry Army in the Soviet campaign against neighboring Poland.
Parts of the book that resulted from his time in the saddle, Red Cavalry, appeared serially in a magazine edited by the great poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had proclaimed, “The proletarian rooster crows at the dawn of man” before himself disappearing into the maw of the revolution. It was published as a book in 1926, and it was immediately received as a great hybrid work of journalism with thin layerings of fiction.
Red Cavalry is reminiscent of the best of Hemingway: lean and unsparing. In a linked cycle of stories, Babel announces early that his theme will be unremitting violence; the opening piece has the sun moving across the sky “like a severed head,” while a peasant who gives the Bolshevik skirmishers food smells “like a crucifixion.” Peasant villages are burned indiscriminately, “fractured columns and the hooks of cruel old women’s fingers dug into the earth,” while illiterate soldiers ponder commands issued from afar while demanding that a kulak woman serve them up the one goose remaining in her barnyard, prompting her reply: “Comrade, it makes me want to hang myself.”
Babel did not wrap his reportage in fiction deeply enough, though. The commander of the First Cavalry Army was enraged at his depictions of Soviet soldiers alternately slacking off, looting civilian homes, and avoiding combat, and he demanded Babel’s head. It took more than two decades for that to happen, by which time the commander, Semyon Budyonny, had risen in Stalin’s regime. He, too, would tumble, but he had his revenge.
Isaac Babel was arrested in 1939, taken to Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison, and executed. Only 15 years later, following Stalin’s death, was he “rehabilitated,” with Red Cavalry and his other books reissued. The collection has seldom been out of print in the West, and it remains an enduring classic of the literature of war.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.